Scotland and the electoral system: Why winning the next GE is huge ask of LAB

August 17th, 2018

The system bias is now strongly pro-CON

We all recall that at the 2005 general election Tony Blair’s Labour won the GB vote by a margin of just 3% but that was enough to give them an overall majority of 64. There was little doubt that the electoral system then favoured the red team.

Things have changed dramatically with the collapse of the LDs and the post-IndyRef rise of the SNP.

Even without the proposed new boundaries the electoral system is biased towards the Tories in that for the same vote share the blue team wins most seats. Thus feeding the recent CON 38% LAB 38% poll numbers into the Electoral Calculus seat calculator and find CON with 21 more MPs than LAB.

That is on the existing boundaries. If the latest Boundaries Commission plan goes through this autumn then the gap would by 40 seats. To put these numbers into context Corbyn’s LAB was seen to have had an extremely good GE2017 making overall net gains of 30 seats but still finished 56 seats behind the Tories.

    Perhaps the biggest reason the system no longer works for LAB is the failure of the party to recover in Scotland where it used to be so dominant as can be seen in the chart above showing the percentage of Scottish Westminster seats by party for each election since GE2001.

    Just imagine how GE2017 would have turned out if LAB had taken 41 of the 59 Scottish seats as it did at GE2005 and GE2010.

At GE2015 the SNP surge saw LAB reduced from 41 Scottish MPs to just one. Last year Corbyn’s party won 7 but the first past the post system meant that the SNP took the bulk of the seats north of the border with barely 37% of the Scottish vote. Scots LAB became the third party in Scotland behind the Tories.

Whatever national polls might be showing the Scotland’s only ones since the general election have had Corbyn’s party in an even worse position than the last election. Current projections based on the latest Scottish polls have Labour once again being reduced to a single Scottish MP.

Without a Scottish recovery the prospect of a Labour majority is very remote indeed.

Mike Smithson


Johnson now has clear lead in the betting for next CON leader

August 16th, 2018


Outsiders have rarely become PM – but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have done

August 16th, 2018

By Photo: Sergeant Tom Robinson

Besides, the ‘rules’ might be changing

TSE wrote last week that “on all seven occasions since World War II when parties have changed PM mid-term, the new PM has always been an incumbent of a great office of state”. He might have gone further. Other than in war-time, with two exceptions, every prime minister between Palmerston and May who succeeded a member of their own party or coalition, had either been Chancellor or Foreign Secretary immediately before.

The exceptions – Balfour in 1902 and Baldwin in 1935 – were both men who were not just de facto Deputy PMs but almost joint-PMs: Balfour was the leader of the government in the Commons, while Baldwin led the Tories who made up almost 90% of the MPs supporting the National Government. Obviously, there is no current equivalent politician.

So, clear then? Assuming that May steps down or is forced out before 2022, the next PM will be Hammond or Hunt, or a successor to them in their role? Not necessarily, for two reasons.

Firstly, the rules are changing. May is herself just about an example of that – the first Home Secretary to become PM since 1855 – though she was still the holder of a Great Office of State, so it’s only a fractional extension. More meaningfully, both in the UK and beyond, parties and movements seem much more prepared to look beyond their charmed inner-circles for new leaders. The prominence of Jacob Rees-Mogg in the betting, while overdone to my mind, is nonetheless testimony to people’s perceptions of his chances.

But secondly, the ‘rule’ was never all that strong in the first place.

To test that, we should look not just at the politicians who actually became PM but also those who might credibly have done so had events taken a different turn. The natural objection to this counterfactualising is “yes, but they didn’t become PM”, which is of course true but to test the rule we need to understand why they failed.

Most recently, in 2016, Theresa May’s final opponent was Andrea Leadsom, from outside the cabinet. Could Leadsom have won? I’d say not: she made consistent errors and didn’t (doesn’t) have the political nous to recover from them. All May had to do, had Leadsom not withdrawn, was sit tight and play it safe. However, a much more serious challenger – Boris Johnson – withdrew before the contest began. He undoubtedly could have won had he properly engaged a campaign team, which is not an unreasonable assumption. Boris had never held government office at all at that time; his most senior post had been mayor of London.

We can skip over 2007, when Gordon Brown really did have the nomination sewn up and head back to 1995. While it might seem implausible that the Tories could have ended up with John Redwood, given his 218-89 defeat to John Major, the fact is that Major said he would have resigned had he won fewer than 215 votes. In an open contest, Redwood might have had the momentum to capture the votes from the centre of the Party as well as the right, against his probable opponents Heseltine and Portillo (none of whom were Chancellor or Foreign Secretary). Heseltine was, of course, a contender in the 1990 contest and would almost certainly have won had Thatcher not withdrawn. At the time, he’d only held middle-ranking cabinet office – and that not for four years.

The only other instance of a leadership election while in government – Labour in 1976 – saw Callaghan defeat Michael Foot, then Secretary of State for Employment. Though the margin was fairly comfortable (176-137), that was perhaps in part due to Foot having recently gone through a bad patch politically. Had Wilson resigned at a different time, or had Foot not made those unforced errors, the result might have been different.

    The reality is that in none of the elections, bar that of 2007, was there anything like certainty that a holder of one of the most senior offices would win. The involvement of party members, with their different priorities to MPs, makes that even less likely for future contests.

None of which is to say that the next PM won’t hold a Great Office. People tend to get appointed to those positions because they are either perceived by the PM as capable, or because the PM needs to appease a powerful rival – though that independent power base can only come about because of the belief of others in that individual. Those twin reasons of ability and/or support place the holders at a great advantage – and of course, doing well in such a senior role reinforces their standing.

However, these reasons are Westminster-centric in a world that’s becoming less so. I agree with TSE’s assessment that Gove stands a very realistic chance, despite the hostility with which Boris-backers view him, though the dynamics of the Brexiteer vote among Con MPs needs to be gamed carefully: there aren’t all that many out-and-out Con leavers and with, say, Gove, Boris and JRM all in the contest, votes would be needed from well beyond for a candidate to survive and prosper. But Gove’s record at Justice and Environment should help him there.

Unfortunately, such rules-of-thumb as we once had were never all that valuable and are even less so. Still, that uncertainty does make for more betting opportunities.

David Herdson


NEW PB / Polling Matters podcast: Silly season. What conspiracy theories do Brits believe? Plus Boris makes tea and “wreath-gate”

August 15th, 2018

On this week’s PB / Polling Matters show Keiran Pedley and Leo Barasi take a different approach to the podcast and look at public opinion on conspiracy theories using some exclusive polling from Opinium.

How many Brits think the earth is flat? Is Elvis alive? Were the mood landings faked? Is Paul dead? Is Nessie real? Our podcasters find out the answers, plus which conspiracy theory has less than half thinking it is false…you can listen to the conspiracy theory segment 20 minutes into the podcast

Also on the show, Keiran and Leo discuss how Corbyn’s latest troubles might impact the polls and what the public think about Boris Johnson’s recent comments on the Burka.

Follow this week’s podcast guests:


Comedy Central’s answer to the Vote Leave Brexit bus

August 15th, 2018

The worry for leavers is if this meme catches on

A key part in Leave’s narrow victory at the referendum was its success in portraying negative comments about leaving the EU as “Project Fear”. That was two and a quarter years ago and now the Brexit date of March 29 2019 is not that far off.

Nobody appears to know what is going to happen and many are fearful of uncertainty. The political situation at Westminster, how the EU might respond and the worries about jobs might just be the right context for the Comedy Central piece to resonate.

Describing and powerful illustrating Brexit as being like the Titanic could touch some raw nerves. It will certainly annoy the hardliners like Jacob Rees-Mogg.

These days, of course, you don’t have to rely so much on the mainstream media. Social media will get this a lot of views.

Will it make a difference? Maybe. Maybe not.

I still think that TMay’s BINO will be what happens but who knows.

Mike Smithson


PB Video Analysis: Five Things That Will Surprise You

August 15th, 2018

We’re all routinely wrong. Mostly that’s because we’re simply don’t know any better. But increasingly it’s the result of us reading things on Facebook, Twitter, and the like that push persuasive narratives. The stories make sense, so we believe them.

But all too often, the data and stories don’t match. And when they don’t… well, our first instinct is to discard the data, looking for reasons why it’s not true.

So this video looks at five things where reality and perception are misaligned. I’m talking Chinese trade, Spanish unemployment, British food, Western fertility, and illegal immigrants from Mexico.

And I’m talking really fast…

Robert Smithson

Robert tweets as ‘@MarketWarbles’


That YouGov CON 4% lead poll looks very much out of line

August 14th, 2018

An outlier or the a sign of the trend?

One of the problems with polling analysis is that the outliers tend to get much more publicity and attention than those that are broadly in line with everybody else. We saw that with the latest YouGov poll showeding Labour down at its lowest level since the general election four Points behind the Conservatives.

So I thought it a good idea to try to put it into context by reproducing the latest Wikipedia list of recent UK voting polls.

The two main parties are broadly neck and neck within the margin of error between them. Both Labour and the Conservatives are in the 30s which is somewhat down on where they were just three or four months ago. UKIP the greens and the Lib Dems are up the latter now getting double figures in the majority of surveys.

In terms of translating the current position in the seats Labour needs a margin of at least 2% in order to be sure of winning most seats. A big issue that could affect the outcome of the next election will come in the autumn when the boundary commission finish the report and this gets put to the House of Commons.

Will TMay push this to the vote? It gives her party an extra boost beyond its already favourable position.

Mike Smithson


Numerology. The next Conservative leader

August 14th, 2018

Let me let you in on a dirty secret.  An awful lot of lawyers are terrified of maths.  They can make words sit up and beg, but put them in front of a formula and they quiver.  When the rate of VAT rose to 20%, many lawyers were privately delighted because the calculation was so much easier to do.  Nevertheless, I have maths ahead.  You have been warned.

The Conservative party leadership race is conducted under unusual rules.  The Parliamentary party conducts an exhaustive ballot – a game of musical chairs where another seat is taken away each round – until only two candidates are left (the losers hope for party bags later).  The last two candidates then face off in a head to head with an entirely different electorate: the Conservative party membership.

In reality this election process is two different contests.  Since the final arbiters are the Conservative party members, they may or may not view things similarly to the Parliamentary Conservative party.  The Labour party experience in 2015 is instructive, where a candidate who only scrambled to make the cut with the Parliamentary party stormed to victory with the membership.

The consequence of this is that the order in which the last two candidates finish in the penultimate round doesn’t matter all that much.  Getting into the last two is all that matters.  In 2001 Iain Duncan Smith got into the last two by one vote.  He then beat Kenneth Clarke decisively among the members. A candidate doesn’t need to worry about winning the majority of his fellow MPs’ support.  He or she just needs enough Parliamentary support to be able to display his or her charms to the membership.

What this means is that any aspiring party leader wants to get into the last two against an opponent who the membership can be expected to like less.  Most candidates will be focussing on the first half of that sentence: getting into the last two.  The frontrunner might well be focussing on the second half: engineering an opponent who they can expect to beat when the members have their say. 

Let’s put a name on this problem: Boris Johnson.  The external evidence suggests that many of his fellow MPs would rather gargle glass than see him become party leader.  How many MPs need to be in this group to stop him?

The Conservative party has 316 MPs.  A candidate in the last three can guarantee making the final two by getting the support of more than a third of the MPs.  So the support of 106 MPs in the final round would get any candidate into the last two. 

In practice, fewer MPs will probably suffice unless there’s some finessing.  If the leading candidate gets the support of 150 MPs, you will make the last two with the backing of 84 MPs.  If the leading candidate gets the support of 175 MPs, you will make the last two with the backing of just 71 MPs.  Theresa May picked up the support of 200 MPs in the last round in 2016.  An equally dominant candidate would make second place achievable on just 59 MPs.

So it doesn’t matter if there are over 200 Conservative MPs who cordially loathe Boris Johnson (and there might well be).  What matters is how many either like him or see him as the best of a bad bunch if it comes to the last three.  If he gets through that test, he is going to be considered very seriously by the membership.

Can he be stopped?  Imagine for a moment that at the time of the leadership election you are the Home Secretary.  You have managed to present yourself as a fresh start in a difficult role, offering policy observations on a wide range of public topics.  You have managed to straddle the Leave/Remain divide among MPs, making you hope for some very senior endorsements and confident that you can get into the last two.  If it were down to the MPs, you might well consider yourself home and hosed.

But it isn’t.  The members will have their say and there are plenty of indications that the membership are not looking for nuance or straddling Leave/Remain divides.  They might well prefer a St George to slay Remainian dragons or, failing a knight on a white charger, a mop on a publicity-loving journalist.  The majority of Conservative MPs might have definitively decided that Boris Johnson is not fit to be leader of the Conservative party.  But if he makes the last two, they might find him foisted on them.  You need not one but two stop-Boris candidates. 

How could our putative Home Secretary avoid this personal and party disaster?  If he has enough support at his disposal, he might seek to lend some of it to a more beatable opponent.  If there were a leading Leaver who is not telegenic, widely disliked by the public and now deeply distrusted by the more intense members of the Leave community who nevertheless had a fair support base in the parliamentary party, he might feel confident that the membership would prefer him to such a candidate.

How feasible is this strategy?  Lending support to other candidates is an obviously dangerous game.  No candidate will want to risk missing out completely and so any candidate contemplating such a tactic will want to build in a margin for safety.  Also, any such tactic would almost certainly leak.  That would be unlikely to impress a membership if it thought it was being deprived by jiggery-pokery of a choice that it wanted to make.

For myself, I wouldn’t want to risk going below 130 MPs if I were in pole position, and then only if I really feared one possible opponent.  That would mean that the next candidate would need 94 MPs.  In a last three of Sajid Javid, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, my guess is that Boris Johnson number is likely to get closer to 100 MPs’ support than 50 and that he might well make the last two whatever gaming of the system his opponents try to work out between them. 

There is another way.  To be in the last three, a candidate first needs to get through earlier rounds.  If a steadier hardline Leaver can be persuaded to stand (Andrea Leadsom maybe?), Boris Johnson might fall at an earlier hurdle if he had insufficient first preferences.  Better yet, get three or four to stand and the chances of the most dangerous opponent falling out early are much improved.  It’s not enough to be acceptable to a sufficiently large constituency of Conservative MPs, you have to be actively wanted by enough to get through the early stages. 

So those first few rounds of musical chairs play a purpose too.  It might be rather easier and more effective for a frontrunner discreetly to loan support to an unfeared rival at an early stage to get rid of that inconvenient Mr Johnson.  From the viewpoint of the Conservative establishment, there might well be more than one way to skin a cat.

Alastair Meeks